How a hurricane turned citizens into criminals.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 4 2005 4:36 AM

The Thin Line Blew

How a hurricane turned citizens into criminals.

The human dynamics of disaster
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The human dynamics of disaster

Here's what your government said this week while people in New Orleans were stealing from and shooting at each other. The secretary of homeland security dismissed the problem as "isolated incidents of criminality." The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency called the security situation "pretty darn good" and expressed surprise at the lawlessness. The governor of Louisiana said she was mystified by the violence. "Disasters tend to bring out the best in everybody, and that's what we expected to see," she asserted. When President Bush finally addressed the chaos, he prescribed "personal responsibility."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

When the history of our disgraceful preparation for and response to Hurricane Katrina is written, logistical failures—evacuation, flood planning, aid delivery, communication—will be only half the story. The other half will be our government's incomprehension of the human part of the disaster. I'm not talking about the victims. I'm talking about the perpetrators, most of them ordinary people. The crime in New Orleans was not isolated. The lawlessness should not have been surprising. Disasters do not tend to bring out the best in people. And if you want to stop them from bringing out the worst, preaching is a lot less effective than weapons and aid.

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Politicians have blamed the violence in New Orleans on "thugs" and "hoodlums." That's true in some places, notably at the convention center. But the role of criminals, and of malice generally, has been inflated. Initial reports of rapes at the Superdome were uncorroborated. Putative witnesses later said they had inferred the rapes from noises in the dark. The mayor blames a lot of the post-hurricane crime on junkies who freaked out because they were cut off from their fixes. And while a lot of people have looted non-necessities such as liquor, jewelry, and television sets, it isn't clear how much of this was taken with barter or desperation in mind.

What's striking about most of the crime is how ordinary the perpetrators and their motives are. They steal food and clothing. They say it's for their kids or neighbors. They argue—and some store managers agree—that that the flood would have ruined the goods anyway. Interviewed by reporters, they come off as decent citizens. Some are uniformed officers. You can imagine yourself, in dire circumstances, doing the same thing.

Unfortunately, the moral descent doesn't stop there. It isn't just the property crimes that were perpetrated for understandable reasons. It's the violent crimes, too. Carjackers were looking for cars to get out. Pirates were looking for boats. One guy described how men with knives demanded his generator. Without excusing them, it's easy to see how frightened people, perhaps with makeshift weapons, might start looking for things like generators. Pretty soon, you're an armed robber.

Or maybe you start confronting rescue personnel. Three or four days into your ordeal, if they brush past you because you're not on their agenda, maybe you push them, or worse. Look at the reports of stranded, hungry people accosting supply trucks, shooting at rescue planes and helicopters, or wrestling with Coast Guard swimmers who have come to help others. The rescuers flee, don't come back, or suspend operations while they try to figure out how to return safely. Next thing you know, one of every seven New Orleans cops is refusing to police the city. They can control ordinary criminals. What they can't control is a city full of ordinary-people-turned-criminals.

It's clear from the comments of the president, the governor, the FEMA director, and the secretary of homeland security that they never planned for this. I don't mean that they failed to anticipate the magnitude of the flooding; we knew that already. I mean that they have no idea how easily a natural disaster can turn human beings into a second-wave destructive force. They don't understand that disasters often bring out the worst in us, that the human dynamics are collective, and that "responsibility" is quickly swamped. If you don't understand these dynamics, you can't plan for them. You end up pleading for "personal responsibility" when what you needed was air drops and the National Guard.

It's not like this hasn't happened before. The 1977 New York City blackout led to an epidemic of stealing. The mayor of Charleston, S.C., during Hurricane Hugo says FEMA was clueless about law and order during that 1989 crisis. He thinks we need a military unit to take charge of these situations. That may be going a bit far, but we certainly need to think more systematically about the human dynamics of natural disasters. We run computer models of hurricanes, levee breaches, and flooding. What about isolation, desperation, looting, fighting, and shooting? It took the mayor of New Orleans three days to tell his cops to switch from rescue operations to controlling post-hurricane crime. Why? Because crime wasn't in the model.

When I see federal officials bragging that they were well-prepared for Katrina because they've been organizing for terrorist attacks, I don't know whether to laugh or cry. In a terrorist attack, the human dynamics will be far worse. That's why they call it "terrorism." The terrorists won't have to inflict most of the deaths directly. They'll just hit us with a dirty bomb to start the panic. We'll do the rest.

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